How do you handle nervous social laughers?
November 9, 2018 4:45 PM   Subscribe

I work in a small agency. Several people I work with have a habit I've never known how to deal with: social laughter, and I really need to know how to cope. Examples within:

This evening I'm at the bus stop in the rain. Fred, the new accountant, approaches.

Fred: Ha ha ha ha! Wet isn't it?

Me: Seems like it.

Fred: Well, they said it would be wet! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Me: Did they?

(This is where I retreat to, slightly dry remarks, because I just can't fake-laugh, it comes out sounding like a dying weasel. I'm being invited to laugh along socially for no good reason and I just cannot do it.)

Fred: Hey yeah, this morning on the radio! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Me, casting about for dialogue: At least it isn't snowing.

Fred, laughing as if I've been enormously witty: Ha ha ha ha ha! That might be better!

Me: I doubt you'll think so, because they don't even clear that bridge over there and it's tricky crossing over to this side when it's iced up.

Fred: Ha ha ha! I'll have to get big boots, hey! Big snowmobile boots, ha ha ha ha ha!

At this point, waiting and getting wetter, I said as cheerfully as I could, "Well, I've had it with waiting for this bus, I'm walking" and left the scene.

In another case, a closer coworker laughs constantly when telling you things like what components he put in his gaming computer. "So I decided I needed 64GB of memory, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!" and I sit or stand there wondering what the joke is.

And one of the women, as well, does a lot of weird laughing and whooping when talking about ordinary non-funny matters.

Two points:

I'm not a sad sack. If something really is funny I laugh. I also work with a couple of smart people who can make me laugh, and I can make them laugh too – when things are funny or real in some way. But a day can go by when nobody's witty, because we're too busy or whatever, and that's fine too.

I am female but, trust me, it's not my overwhelming personal charms that have these men laughing nervously in my presence.

As I say, I tend to retreat to calm, slightly serious or trite remarks, in an effort to calm the dialogue down and get them to stop laughing. But it doesn't work, and I feel a certain social pressure to laugh along even though nothing is funny. And I just can't do it.

So, what do you do?
posted by zadcat to Human Relations (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I work as a technical trainer, meeting one on one with a lot of clients, and I've encountered this (most frequently with people who do not speak English as their first language). It's not something you can really do anything about. I just go on with my patter as usual and just accept that this is a nervous habit. I don't feel compelled to either laugh along or bring the mood down. I just ignore it.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:50 PM on November 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

I'm a social laugher. I don't do it as much as these people do -- at least, I hope I don't. There are some situations (as with the memory thing, which may be funny to tech people) in which there might actually be a joke. But the nervous laughter is just that: nervousness. They are not at their ease, and they are trying to put both themselves and others at ease. Just react in a friendly fashion, as if nothing were unusual. If they become more nervous, they may either laugh more or become hurt and withdraw from you. You don't want either of these results.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:53 PM on November 9, 2018 [14 favorites]

Just do...nothing? Like, you don’t need to do anything in these situations. Be your normal self. They know they’re nervous laughing too on some level. Trying to do anything further is micromanaging someone else’s personality. You can smile, I guess, if you don’t already do that.

They almost definitely don’t care how you react.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:01 PM on November 9, 2018 [59 favorites]

Also this really isn’t strictly nervous, a lot of people just... like to laugh. If you’re not much of a laugher, they will probably note that about your personality (the same way you note that someone likes to use the water fountain after meetings or something) and it largely will not matter.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:04 PM on November 9, 2018 [29 favorites]

a certain family member of mine does it and it makes me crazy. And now that person's spouse has started to pick it up... defaulting to heh heh heh rather than just letting a silence BE... and it's the worst. But yeah, there's nothing you can do, and nothing that it would really be appropriate to do. Just ignore.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:04 PM on November 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

I like to assume that nervous laughers are silently begging me to serve up some humor and give them a reason to laugh. All I have that's office-appropriate is a modest supply of puns and dad jokes and mild witticisms.

It's kind of nice to have an appreciative audience for a level of humor that would get heckled anywhere else. (Try to forget that they'd be laughing no matter what you say or if you keep silent.) At a bus stop: Did you hear the one about the wheels on the bus? No? Oh, I thought that one had gone around and around.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 5:11 PM on November 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

“(This is where I retreat to, slightly dry remarks, because I just can't fake-laugh, it comes out sounding like a dying weasel. I'm being invited to laugh along socially for no good reason and I just cannot do it.)”

I think this is just fine. You don’t need to laugh back. “Yep.” “Whachagonnado.” A nod and a grimace. Whatever. Humans just basically need to make noises at each other’s as a social thing. Think of it as dog butt sniffing. There isn’t much expectation beyond making a noise back.
posted by MountainDaisy at 5:14 PM on November 9, 2018 [13 favorites]

Don't worry about it. You're not being invited to laugh back. It's just that person's nervous habit and I seriously doubt they'll even notice whether you're laughing or not. (Credentials: Sometimes nervous laugher who is self-conscious about it and tries not to do it and never thinks about whether the other person is doing it.)
posted by HotToddy at 5:17 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I just kind of do a single "hmpf"-chuckle. Delivered with a smile it seems to be just enough noise to get by most social situations where I'm not actually amused but want to appear engaged.
posted by sm1tten at 5:18 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah, you don't have to do anything here. A lot of the time these people don't even know they're doing it, it's just a verbal tic. They're not laughing because it's funny, they're just laughing because it makes them feel more comfortable. Ignore the nervous laughter, treat it like a normal conversation. If anything try to be a little extra accommodating and make an effort to set your interlocutor at ease in subtle ways, since nervous laughter is often a sign of, well, nervousness.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:19 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

My extended family does a lot of this. It's meant to put people at ease. They're very sociable, good at getting people to feel comfortable generally, and this is one of the big ways they go about it. I myself will use it strategically for the same reasons, in the same way that I'll add exclamation points or smiley faces to email sentences if I think the other person is prone to being defensive. You don't have to do anything here, but smiling is probably a good idea.
posted by xammerboy at 5:30 PM on November 9, 2018 [19 favorites]

Blank face, maybe a small mouth corner twitch up, “mmmm.” This is probably a reason people think I’m weird though.
posted by monkeyscouch at 6:02 PM on November 9, 2018

2nding Xammerboy -- I do this unconsciously. I'm not socially nervous (quite the opposite), it's just something I've internalized as helping put people in a good mood, and now it's a tic of sorts. Similar to how smiling may help you be happy.

I don't expect anyone to laugh back, or engage with it at all. And there's certainly no joke or humor involved. It's just a thing I do.

Once in a blue moon a friend will bring this up and it takes me off guard:
"What are you laughing at?"
"Huh? I was just laughing."
"At what?"
"I don't know? Haha, I like to laugh."
"But, what's so funny?"
"I just laugh a lot haha..."

As long as you engage in the conversation I think you're fine and dandy.
posted by matrixclown at 6:26 PM on November 9, 2018 [7 favorites]

I have a coworker who does this, and before I switched to working from home the only coping strategy I found was just... letting go of caring about it. It's not about me, and since she laughs after everything she says, including pretty tragic things, it's pretty clear that it's not because she thinks everything is funny or she's trying to get me to laugh. It's just her nervous tic. I opted to look at it the same way I view the mild stammer of a different coworker: not a problem for me to solve, not a thing I need to react to or draw attention to. And that seemed to work pretty well for my annoyance level.
posted by palomar at 6:35 PM on November 9, 2018 [27 favorites]

Pretending people are witty and fun is how a solid 15-35% of people deal with being expected to talk to or listen to you when forced into social contexts where silence seems inappropriate. This applies to cashiers and wait staff and neighbors and coworkers and children and lots of folks.

So let them do that, they don’t care how you react, as long as it’s not rudely stalking off, like into the cold rain instead of waiting for a bus...
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:37 PM on November 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

What if you imagined they were stoned? Would that make it amusing instead of irritating?
posted by armeowda at 7:42 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

It’s nervous sometimes, sure, but it’s also often irrevocably ingrained as a way to telegraph friendliness. I think your conclusion that they’re expecting you to laugh back is off— I think it’s either totally meaningless, or sending a general message of harmlessness. They may be hoping you reciprocate the friendliness— conversing with someone makes a lot of us feel vulnerable— but I can’t imagine they’re expecting you to mirror their quirks. Please don’t try to “get them to stop” or feel pressure to laugh back. For some reason I’m getting the sense you look down on these people a bit, based on this one thing, and if so, I don’t know if that’s 100% fair.

If it’s annoying, I understand that. I’m irritated by sniffers, throat-clearers and people who say “amazing” a lot, but as they’re innocuous and basically involuntary, I don’t concern myself with them. And if I do find myself irrittated, I try to be a little generous and grant them the latitude they’re surely granting me for whatever I’m inevitably doing that drives them bats.
posted by kapers at 8:14 PM on November 9, 2018 [12 favorites]

laughter is't just a response to something being funny - I will laugh when something is delightful, or at a pleasant surprise, or even if I'm just happy to see someone. Your coworkers like you, and you should feel good about that. If you like them, try smiling back, it might help you understand them better.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:35 PM on November 9, 2018 [13 favorites]

Yeah, you know, laughing just feels good. I feel kind of sorry for people who don't know how to get themselves laughing just for the heck of it (and I wouldn't even conflate "social laughing" with "fake laughing." I can do both and would be surprised if you couldn't tell the difference). Sure, social laughing can help ease a person's tension, especially when faced with someone who is apparently judging them, but I really would encourage you to reframe this as a difference in style rather than some character flaw. I bet Fred knows how to laugh with his "smart" friends, too.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:03 PM on November 9, 2018 [13 favorites]

Your answers in your first scene would make me nervous, and I am not a nervous chatter. You could try putting them at ease and releasing some of the nervousness. Welcome them with a friendly greeting, open up a topic of conversation, etc.

Rather than "Did they?" try, "Boy, they were sure right. Great to see you this morning. Did you catch that game 3 of the series?" Or whatever.

Of course, it might not help, but sounding more open and friendly might help.

( I am afraid my advice might sound harsh; I don’t mean for it to. I am just tired and not taking my own advice tonight.")
posted by SLC Mom at 11:18 PM on November 9, 2018 [16 favorites]

I tend to agree with SLC Mom that some of your reactions might be exacerbating the laughing. In answer to Fred's second question I might try "They did." which might make Fred feel less that he is being asked to justify or explain his statement (if this is what he does feel). And I think your statement about the bridge could make him feel defensive - you're changing the parameters of the conversation a bit from joking to serious.

No advice about the gaming laughing, except to treat it as a conversational disability and not as a signal that something is humourous.

And of course it's not on you to try to react to these people in a way that makes them feel a particular way - just if your aim is less laughter it could be worth trying.
posted by paduasoy at 11:53 PM on November 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

For the bus stop example above, I could see myself laughing because sometimes things are lowkey bleak and when I say them out loud, I’m amused by the absurdity of the circumstances. Not for anything that’s legitimately life-threatening, just for stuff where I’m like “Yeah, that WOULD happen, wouldn’t it.”

So maybe think about it as a form of wry punctuation on otherwise factual conversation.
posted by delight at 12:18 AM on November 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

I also felt nervous reading the example you gave. I think SLC Mom's example is good. It diverts the conversation and provides a satisfying response to their opener. Basically, if they are already nervous laughers then having the conversation non-reciprocated is going to send it into a total tail spin. If someone is coming across awkward and daft, rescuing them and changing the subject is easiest on everyone.
posted by kitten magic at 4:54 AM on November 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've honestly never noticed anyone do this. Which must mean ... the call is coming from inside the house! Ha ha ha ha!

Ahem. Actually, my kids always accuse me of laughing at my own jokes--which of course are dad jokes--so I guess I am probably one of those people. And from that privileged viewpoint, I can tell you that I never notice anyone not laughing, so these annoying yoicks probably don't notice you not laughing either. It's just one of those differences that make life a constant voyage of wonder...
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:58 AM on November 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I've got a coworker who giggles before, after, and during nearly every sentence he utters about any subject, and not quietly. They moved his desk next to mine.

Quitting my job is probably not the best way to handle this situation, but there's only so much of the work day I can stand wearing isolating earphones. I am not paid enough to put up with this.
posted by asperity at 4:11 PM on November 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Coming to the party late. Perhaps they have pseudobulbar affect, in which case they can't help it? (Still trying to figure out this linking business.)
posted by intrepid_simpleton at 2:13 PM on November 12, 2018

Say something neutral in a friendly tone that follows after what they said ("Yup, sure is!" or whatever) and do the white person smile. Acknowledge them, but you don't have to keep going down that path.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:32 PM on November 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I worked at PIRG, we had a canvasser who laughed while he was talking, constantly. It was such an ongoing feature of his personality that people commented often, and he took it in good spirit, laughing as always. He consistently pulled in more donations than any other canvasser every night, year after year. It's a nervous habit and it can be annoying, but it can be an asset sometimes. In my experience, it's just the way some people are socialized, and after a while you can tune it out.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:46 AM on November 25, 2018

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